Tempeh is a healthy and versatile choice according to Arabella Forge.
Tempeh is a healthy and versatile choice according to Arabella Forge. Photo: Melanie Faith Dove

Some of us will remember the meat substitutes of the '80s and '90s – puffed up soy burgers, cardboard-tasting nuggets and foods labelled with catchy phrases such as "I can't believe it's not bacon".

But long before these imitation products entered the market, there were a number of protein-rich foods used during times of scarcity, particularly across Asia, when nutrient-dense animal-based foods  were not available. These included, for example, sticky, cheese-smelling soy bean paste that had been fermented in rice straw bags, or a cake of chickpeas and barley, inoculated with a unique mould culture and pressed down to form a densely-packed slab. Legumes and beans are the best choice for a source of non-animal protein. However, the amount of available nutrients depends on how they're processed and cooked.

Legumes and beans are the best choice for a source of non-animal protein. However, the amount of available nutrients depends on how they're processed and cooked. 

Unfermented soy foods common on today's supermarket shelves, such as soy milk, soy cheese and meat-imitation products, are a product of Western food culture and developed during the 20th century. More traditional meat replacements such as natto and tempeh are considered "superfoods" by Asian cultures and contain more nutrients than these modern creations. They are cost-effective to prepare, and easy to procure. But you might need to be a little adventurous – the texture is a little different, and you might want to keep the windows open as you cook.

Faux meat is making a comeback, but there are healthier protein sources for vegetarians. Click for more photos

Meat substitutes

Faux meat is making a comeback, but there are healthier protein sources for vegetarians.

  • Natto has a stretchy, gum-like consistency and can smell a little "strong" - but it's a healthy choice that is nutrient and protein rich.
  • Fried rice with natto; this is a great recipe for incorporating natto.
  • Tempeh is a versatile and healthy protein source for vegetarians.
  • Tofu comes in silken, soft or firm and each texture has various cooking applications.
  • Textured vegetable protein can be turned into just about anything; including a mock chicken burger.

Natto

Natto has long been revered for its nutritional properties. The samurai warriors ate it daily, and attributed much of their strength and stamina to its powerful properties (folklore claims they even fed it to their horses).

Natto is made using a traditional fermentation method using Bacillus subtilis culture, which renders the soybeans more easily digestible and breaks down components such as phytic acid and protease inhibitors, which are present in fresh soybeans. These interfere with protein digestion and bind to nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc and inhibit their absorption in the intestines. However, they can be deactivated through soaking, sprouting or traditional fermentation.

Natto is a sticky, gooey concoction that can be stretched for lengths up to a metre like chewing gum, and tastes like a mixture of durian fruit and smelly cheese.

Natto contains a full spectrum of amino acids, which makes it a good source of vegetarian protein. It is also a rare source of vitamin K, which predominantly exists in animal foods such as butter, and is important for healthy bones and blood clotting.

What to look for:

Traditional natto can be found in the freezer section at Japanese food stores. It is usually categorised according to the size of the soybean (small, medium or large).

The smaller varieties contain a richer, stronger flavour, and the larger ones have a stronger ammonia smell. Natto products are usually not genetically modified, and organic products are available too.

Do:

  • Enjoy it mixed with eggs, shoyu, nori seaweed, mustard and rice vinegar atop a bowl full of fried rice.
  • Add it to soups, stews, sushi and mixed plates as a condiment.

Don't:

  • Serve it in large amounts to an uninitiated guest.
  • Cook it in a small space without any ventilation. Many restaurants that serve it require guests to sit in a separate area due to its distinctive pungent smell. You might want to keep the window open as you cook.

* See a recipe, fried rice with natto, below.

Tempeh

Tempeh is a pressed-bean cake fermented with whole soy beans, rice, barley, or wheat. Because of its bulky size and appearance, it's a useful meat replacement in stews, casseroles and barbecue dishes.

It's also a good source of protein (19.5 per cent), and because it's made from whole, unprocessed soybeans, it contains a good amount of fibre and omega 3 fatty acids.

Just like miso and natto, tempeh is a traditional soy food that is fermented for a period of time with a mould culture to allow the nutrients to become more easily available and digestible. It also deactivates several components such as phytic acid, and phytoestrogens (plant-based estrogens), which are potentially harmful.

What to look for:

Tempeh is sold at most health food stores and supermarkets. Many GM-free and organic brands are available. It is a highly perishable product, so it is usually vacuum-packed and kept in the fridge section. Patches of mould or tiny black spots are not uncommon in tempeh – it's a healthy overgrowth of the mould culture. But any mould that is green or has a bad smell should be discarded.

Do:

  • Pre-soak tempeh in a salt-water solution for a few minutes before cutting it into strips, frying it, baking it or adding it to stews or curries.
  • Make a marinade of sweet and sour sauce (try a combination of honey, vinegar and miso) before tossing it on the barbecue.

Don't:

  • Combine it with rice dishes unless it is really well flavoured with spices or a marinade as otherwise the dish may taste bland.
  • Add it to miso soups in place of tofu.

Tofu

One of the most popular and versatile soybean products is tofu – a white cheese curd made with coagulated soy "milk". Tofu has the lowest protein content of many meat analogues– 16 per cent in the raw, firm varieties and 8 per cent in the raw, silken varieties. It has relatively high levels of calcium for a legume, but this calcium is not easily absorbed because of the phytate content of the beans.

Tofu is easier to digest than fresh soybeans – however it still contains some phytic acid and estrogenic compounds that are not fully eliminated during processing. These compounds can only be reduced with longer periods of traditional fermentation. Some varieties of tofu made in country areas of Japan and China did involve a longer cooking time of the soy bean, or a short period fermentation of the bean curd, which would have rendered the bean to be more nutritious.

Tofu became popular only 2000 years ago in China. Its pure appearance and soft, custard-like texture made it a widespread staple of Buddhist monks, who based their diet on frugal, vegetarian principles.

It also became closely associated with the path of spiritual enlightenment because of its simple beauty and ease of cooking.

However, because tofu is made by a process of precipitation instead of fermentation (miso, tempeh and natto are all fermented), many of the anti-nutrients and phytoestrogens are still present in the final product.

Outside the monastic environment, tofu was traditionally consumed by working classes in a soup made with pork or fish stock. The nutrient-dense broth would naturally compensate for any nutrients forgone through eating non-fermented bean curd.

What to look for:

Tofu is sold at Asian markets, health food stores and supermarkets. It comes in several varieties depending on firmness – soft, silken or firm. The firm variety is best fried or used in place of cheese or meat. The softer varieties can be added to soups or creamed into a paste. There are usually organic and GM-free varieties available too.

Most tofu products are pasteurised, which makes their shelf life up to 60 days longer than fresh tofu kept in a refrigerator. If you can find them, fermented tofu cubes are considered a delicacy. They are covered with a white or yellow fungus, and have a distinctly salty flavour, akin to stinky cheese. They make an excellent appetiser.

Do:

  • Marinate and fry tofu with vegetables and rice. Or puree silken tofu and cream with fruit to make a dessert.
  • Consume in small amounts as part of a varied diet, ideally with plenty of fish, cereal grains or rice, vegetables and fish broth. 

Don't:

  • Use the soft or silken varieties it as a meat substitute in curries or stews. They can go sludgy!


Textured vegetable protein (TVP)

TVP is one of the cheapest and most versatile of meat replacements.

It is high in protein and can replicate meat products in texture and shape, or it can be added to meat dishes as a "meat extender".

TVP is made using fresh soybeans, which contain significant levels of anti-nutrients, such as phytic acid and phytoestrogens.

When compared to the other vegetarian protein sources described here, TVP contains high levels of anti-nutrients, such as phytic acid and protease inhibitor, as well as estrogenic compounds which are present in the fresh soy bean.

During processing, the soybeans are usually treated with hexane to separate the fat from the protein. After the fat has been extracted, the soy flour is shaped into granules, flakes or patties. Flavouring agents are often added to boost the taste and texture of this otherwise bland-tasting flour product.

What to look for:

This is the least healthy option of the meat substitutes outlined here. If you would like to cook with it, try to buy it in its most unprocessed form, and not as an ingredient in an imitation meat product.

Do:

  • Look for organic, GM-free products that have been processed without harsh chemicals such as hexane. Try US product Bob's Red Mill TVP, which is sold at several health food stores.
  • Imitation meat products made with TVP often contain artificial flavouring agents. If you use it, buy it as a flour and make the product yourself.

ALT


Fried rice with natto

3 eggs

1 heaped tbsp natto

2 cups long grain brown rice, cooked

1/4 tsp mustard

1/4 tsp shoyu soy sauce

1/4 tsp rice bran vinegar

Coconut oil for frying

4 spring onions, finely chopped

1 small green capsicum, finely chopped

1 tsp nori seaweed flakes

In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, natto, mustard and half of the soy sauce and vinegar. Set aside. In a separate bowl, combine the rice, capsicum, spring onions and remainder of the soy sauce and vinegar. Mix well.

Place a large frypan on a medium-high heat. Add a dash of coconut oil. Pour in the egg mixture and lightly scramble, taking care not to overcook. Remove from heat, place eggs in a large mixing bowl.

Add another dash of coconut oil to the pan and add the rice mixture. Stir well for a minute or two, until the rice is warm and crispy. Remove from heat and combine with the egg mixture. Stir well. Add in the nori flakes and any additional shoyu or vinegar to taste. Serve immediately.

Serves 4


Stockist suggestions

Japanese food stores should stock these products (except TVP). Natta can be found in the freezer section.

Textured Vegetable Protein: can be sourced from Bob's Red Mill Organic Brand www.bobsredmill.com. Email them for local stockists.